Which do you think is the most powerful reinforcer a teacher can use to encourage students to behave? Here are your choices: (each of these is extremely important, but there is one that is more powerful than the others!)
1. Engaging Instruction
2. Discipline Strategies
3. Motivation Strategies
4. Teacher Attention
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist so that I could be the one to figure out and finally interpret the language of dolphins. Failing Calculus in college changed that plan! (It was an 8 a.m. class and I failed it twice because I just didn't have the discipline to get up on time and drive the hour commute - that's my excuse anyway.)
Instead, I became an art teacher and researcher. I have been looking for the Rosetta Stone of classroom management for a few years now - what are the keys to helping art teachers improve their practice? Are there just one or two things we can do that will have an immediate and lasting impact on student behavior? I have finally found the most powerful strategy a teacher can use to influence students.... this one IS the key. It is all about focus.
We have many tools in our classroom management toolbox that we can use to influence students to behave well. We are trained to provide engaging lessons; to keep the kids too busy to misbehave. This is the first thing I see teachers ask for when they start to struggle - "What is a fun art lesson for a rough bunch of 4th (or 2nd, or 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, etc.) graders? S.O.S.!!!!" I see this question repeated in all the Facebook art teacher groups; it doesn't matter whether the teacher serves high school, middle school, or elementary school. Everyone believes that as long as the lesson is interesting and engaging enough, the kids will behave.
The second most common question I see is when a teacher has tried all the discipline strategies and failed to reach the kids. They are loud, rude, talk over the teacher, horseplay, and refuse to comply. No matter which discipline strategies s/he tries, the kids just don't care. Here are common things this teacher will list: redirect/remind, re-teaching rules and procedures, talking to the child in the hallway, moving seats, time-out, calling parents, writing kids up, referrals, discipline assignments, etc. At this point, the teacher is frustrated, burned out, and ready to give up. What can s/he do with a class full of kids who just don't care?
Third, teachers will ask about incentives. They often ask, what are some motivation strategies other teachers have used that "work" to encourage hard work, achievement, and respectful attitudes? Raffle tickets for a prize drawing every Friday? Popcorn parties once each month? How about starting an "Art Student of the Week or Month?"
All of these strategies are invaluable for teachers to encourage students to do well, but there is something much more powerful than an engaging lesson, or a discipline strategy, or even students earning incentives.
The teacher's attention is THE most powerful reinforcer in the classroom. Think about it - when you give more attention to the students who are doing well than the students who are acting up, what happens? What happens when you focus on the bad behavior? Of course, you don't want to ignore the disruptors, but holding them accountable while simultaneously FOCUSING on the good behavior will work wonders. I have seen this happen again and again in my classroom. Where is my attention? Am I thinking about the bad behavior or the good behavior?
Students will work for your attention, whether it is negative or positive. What are you acknowledging more of? The vast majority of students WANT to please, they WANT to be the recipient of your nurturing, your mentorship, your acknowledgment. Are you noticing the accomplishments, whether they are behavioral or academic? What behaviors are you purposefully nurturing in your classroom? The answer is whatever you pay attention to the most, whether positive or negative.
I have often wondered what is the most powerful classroom management tool, and I figured out a few years ago that there are several; instruction, motivation, consistent discipline, and the teacher's "warm-strict" attitude. I discovered recently that there is one that supersedes all the others. There is one thing that we all can develop with practice; paying attention to what we want and refusing to focus on what we don't want.
When I am doing a consultation, one of the first questions I ask is, "Are you focusing more on the good behaviors or the bad behaviors?" I have personally witnessed an inner city elementary art teacher see this strategy improve her classroom culture. She was grinning from ear to ear when I left that afternoon a few weeks ago; simply noticing what the kids were doing RIGHT transformed her teaching practice. Over and over, both in my own classroom and in hearing other art teachers' stories, I've seen the truth of this revelation.
The teacher's attention is the most powerful strategy we can use to influence students to behave.
Dr. Fred Jones, Tools For Teaching (at the 16:40 minute mark)
"So, here are these kids playing this helpless hand-raiser game, and what do they get for it? Well, they get to ace 25 other kids out of your undivided helping, caring, loving, nurturing attention, the most powerful reinforcer in the classroom."
Here is a story about how powerful the teacher's attention can be from Rachel Hessing Wintemberg, The Helpful Art Teacher: "I walked into a classroom once and made everyone stand up. I declared that I was no longer going to allow the kids who were there to learn to be victimized by the ones who weren't. I put all the quietest kids (you know, the ones whose names you don't know) in the FRONT and I told them that this was THEIR art class and that from now on it would be all about them. I put all the loudest kids, the ones who were preventing me from teaching, in the back. 'You should be happy now. You get to sit with your friends. Don't be so upset. You won. You don't have to learn if you don't want to.' One boy's face fell; 'Does that mean you are giving up on us? Giving up on me?' Until that moment I had no idea how much power I really had. 'No' I answered confidently 'It means that, if you want to be a part of this class you are going to have to earn your way back in. You have a choice. You've always had a choice. Up until now, THIS is what you have chosen. Man up. Make different choices and I will notice.' The kids that are misbehaving and calling you names, they desperately crave your attention. You hold all of the power. They hold none of the power. So, since they crave your attention, LET THEM EARN IT." artedguru.com
"I've had exciting lessons before but minimal student engagement, and some mediocre lessons and awesome student involvement and participation. It really depends on how you interact with the students; showing respect and attention to them. If you pay attention to your kids and show them your interest in them, it's definitely infectious and you'll have kids wanting to do stuff FOR you, if not for them. Kids love doing tasks for the teachers who show they care. ❤️ That task could be cleaning the counter or working 100% on a project." Jill Shinsky, quoted with permission from the Middle School Art Teachers Facebook group
"Focus your attention on creating an enjoyable classroom experience for your students, and refrain from speaking to individual students about their behavior or giving more attention to those that misbehave more often. Instead, follow your classroom management plan and heartily let your students know when they’re doing well." Michael Linsin, How To Stop Wasting Time And Attention On Difficult Students, smartclassroommanagement.com
The Power of Attention - Dr. Becky Bailey, Conscious Discipline